A prehistoric crocodile that lived around 180 million years ago has been identified – almost 250 years after its fossilised remains were discovered.
A fossil skull found in a quarry near the Bavarian town of Altdorf in Germany in the 1770s has been recognised as the species Mystriosaurus laurillardi, which lived in tropical waters during the Jurassic period.
For the past 60 years it was thought the animal was part of a similar species, known as Steneosaurus bollensis, which existed around the same time, researchers say.
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However, palaeontologists have now identified the creature by analysing fossils unearthed in the UK and Germany.
The team, which included scientists from the University of Edinburgh, also revealed that another skull, discovered in Yorkshire in the 1800s, belongs to Mystriosaurus laurillardi.
Dr Mark Young, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “Unravelling the complex history and anatomy of fossils like Mystriosaurus is necessary if we are to understand the diversification of crocodiles during the Jurassic period.
“Their rapid increase in biodiversity between 200 and 180 million years ago is still poorly understood.”
A Mystriosaurus skull seen from above © Sven Sachs/Michela Johnson/PA
The marine predator – which was more than four metres in length – had a long snout and pointed teeth, and preyed on fish, the team says.
It lived in warm seas alongside other animals including ammonites and large marine reptiles, called ichthyosaurs.
Researchers said the discovery of fossils in present-day Germany and the UK shows that the species could easily swim between islands, much like modern saltwater crocodiles.
Sven Sachs, of the Naturkunde-Museum Bielefeld, who led the study, said: “Mystriosaurus looked like a gharial but it had a shorter snout with its nasal opening facing forwards, whereas in nearly all other fossil and living crocodiles the nasal opening is placed on top of the snout.”
The fossil was discovered by Johann Friedrich Bauder, a merchant and avid naturalist who was mayor of Altdorf from 1770 to 1776.
The study, led by Naturkunde-Museum Bielefeld in Germany, is published in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.
It was supported by the Palaeontographical Society, Leverhulme Trust and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
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